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There's a carnival along the catwalk

With a resurgent economy, Brazil's fashion industry is exploding. And it's not all about beaches and bikinis.

July 03, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

On a recent day, the seasoned 14-year-old showed off samples from his first collection, which he said was inspired by motocross racing, a personal passion. He likes mixing shapes and fabrics -- leather, wool, velvet, lace -- the way a hip-hop DJ might sample swatches of old James Brown beats. A dress from the collection expresses this philosophy with crisscrossing diagonal zippers and a softening see-through layer of white gauze below the ribs. "I think the rest of the world, they're bored with their [way of] living, so they come to Brazil and see new things," says the country's newest boy wonder designer. "I think Brazil is growing up, in music, in fashion."

Pedro and both his parents are showing their new collections as part of Sao Paulo Fashion Week. Though only in its 10th year, it is Brazil's single biggest media event outside soccer and the continent's most important couture happening, upstaging its glamorous elder rival, Rio Fashion Week. Sally Singer, fashion news and features director for Vogue, questions how much Brazilian designers can actually benefit from such a showcase. "What Brazil still does best, and what everyone seems to want, are bikinis and jeans, and bikinis and jeans are not things that need to be shown on a runway," she says. But in the words of Britain's the Independent newspaper, Sao Paulo is "the only real contender to join the established fashion capitals of New York, London, Milan and Paris."

The fashion industry functions as a kind of giant infomercial for the entire country and not only the tourist hot spots of Rio and Sao Paulo. Fashion editors and photographers are tripping over one another as they flock to Brazil's remote white sand beaches and dramatic cityscapes to shoot lavish spreads. In recent months, the influential Selfridges department store in London hosted a monthlong homage to Brazilian fashion, film, photography, music, design and sports, and French merchandisers feted the South American country with a "Year of Brazil" promotional bash.

Travel writers are penning creamy tributes to the "tanned midriffs and intoxicating smiles" of Rio's vibrant night life and "the seductive buzz of Brazilian Portuguese" -- this from the New York Times. The international party crowd, always scanning the horizon for new playgrounds to conquer, has glommed onto Brazil's alluring combination of beautiful bodies and (relatively) cheap airfares and ocean-view hotel rooms. Depictions of Brazil as a 24-hour open-air den of debauchery are rampant. "Many of the people I've met here seem to regard sex as little more than a good massage," gushed one Conde Nast Traveler writer. "I decide to make out with three different guys in the spirit of cultural research."

Brazilian fashion designers are used to such hyper-hormonal hyperbole, and while they certainly don't discourage it, they gently suggest that this is only part of the picture. "The cliche, I think, is the sexuality, not the sensuality," says Amir Slama, whose Rosa Cha beachwear label is legendary for how much colorful whimsy it can pack into two triangular pieces of cloth barely bigger than a bandanna. Folkloric characters from Brazil's northern Bahia region may find their way onto a Rosa Cha customer's bronzed backside as easily as biomorphic shapes inspired by Oscar Niemeyer's buildings.

Sexual-hothouse stereotypes of Brazil are giving way to deeper, more nuanced impressions, says Slama, president of the Assn. of Brazilian Fashion Designers. Eight years ago, when he first started selling his collections in France, Slama says, French stores would use mannequins made up to look like American Indians. Nowadays, he says, his clothes are displayed alongside those of Gucci and Jean Paul Gaultier. Gradually, he believes, Europeans are coming to realize that Brazilian fashion can goose your brain as well as your libido.

"I think that we generate a very sensual woman, very sensual man, a very particular way of living and being," Slama says. "And I think that for this millennium, that looks like a very global look, you know?"

Cariocas vs. Paulistas

A major source of this current fashion dynamism is the long-standing rivalry/infatuation that exists between Sao Paulo, the country's business and financial center, and Rio, its physically stunning cultural capital. The cities are only a 40-minute plane ride apart, intensifying both their mutual competition and their mutual influence. It's as if Los Angeles were next to Philadelphia, just down the interstate from Manhattan.

Over the years, fashion insiders say, Cariocas have absorbed more of Sao Paulo's urban sophistication, while Paulistas have developed their inner Carioca by dressing a bit sexier and funkier. There's a laissez-faire attitude toward displaying skin on Rio's famous beaches, where it's not uncommon to spot a 250-pound woman in a bikini or a 70-year-old man in a Speedo, unself-consciously disporting themselves among the legions of tall, tan, young and lovely.

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